Little big house: Big update for a North Downtown Cape Cod

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The back of the Trowbridge house, renovated and updated by STOA Design and Construction, sports a deep overhand above the sliding doors to let winter sun into the dining room, but not summer glare. STOA designed terraces, delineated by steel borders, leading from the driveway to the back yard and patio. Photo: John Robinson The back of the Trowbridge house, renovated and updated by STOA Design and Construction, sports a deep overhand above the sliding doors to let winter sun into the dining room, but not summer glare. STOA designed terraces, delineated by steel borders, leading from the driveway to the back yard and patio. Photo: John Robinson

The remaking of one Charlottesville house is a study in contrasts. It was a modern addition to a traditional (though not very old) house. It didn’t change much about the original structure—except for turning it from a dark, unpleasant space into a light-filled and open home. It bumped up the house’s square footage considerably but added almost nothing to its footprint.

In short, it was clever.

“The major focus was what we’re doing right now,” said Matt Trowbridge as he sat in his dining room with a visitor. Through a mostly glass wall near the table, the leafy neighborhood frames a wide view of the backyard. “We were looking to emphasize a sense of being tied to the outside.”

A dining area merges seamlessly with the kitchen, soaking up light and views through large sliding glass doors. Photo: John Robinson

The renovation accomplished that, plus a lot more. Trowbridge, his wife Elisa, and their two young daughters needed more space, and they wanted their house—a 1980 Cape Cod—to work better.

“People come into our house and compliment us and say ‘It’s so open and light.’ And we just laugh, because it was so anti-light and so closed in,” said Matt. Living areas felt small and dark, and doorways were placed in a way that made it hard to arrange furniture.

The existing kitchen was a decent size, but the work area was crowded into one corner. With Elisa being an avid cook and the couple keen to host family and friends, the kitchen needed to become more functional. The Trowbridges also wanted to add a second-floor master suite.

They’d had most of this in mind when they bought the house in 2007, but, said Matt, “As we lived here, we became less interested in totally changing this house. It was well-built. We thought, let’s respect what was here.”

What’s more, they decided not to sacrifice outdoor space to expand their house. Instead, they wanted to replace a rear screened porch and build up, leaving the house’s footprint mostly intact. In 2009, they brought these ideas to Justin Heiser and Mike Savage of STOA Design and Construction.

“By the time we talked to Justin, we had a good idea of what we wanted to do,” said Matt.
STOA got to work on what was, in essence, a giant puzzle.

Cook’s treat
That puzzle included a rigid budget, and the Trowbridges praise STOA’s ability to complete the project while respecting financial constraints. “It’s always helpful when a client says, we only have this much money,” said Heiser. “It gives a road map to something everyone can be happy with. You pick your battles—you have high-design elements in some places, and scale back in other areas.”

Clearly, the priority in this project is the minimal, light-filled kitchen and dining room that replaced the old screened porch. The rooms invite the backyard in visually at every opportunity: through large windows in the cook’s workspace, through the big south-facing glass doors in the dining room, and through smaller, high windows on the east and west walls.

Photo: John Robinson

“One goal was a commanding view of the yard,” said Heiser—especially since the Trowbridge girls plus packs of neighbor kids are always coming and going. With young visitors in mind, he also pushed for an extra full-light door around the corner from the large sliding doors. This provides an easier way for kids to enter and lets in even more sun.

“The kitchen’s the only thing I cared about,” said Elisa. She’s more than happy with Heiser’s design: a galley arrangement with a bar, done in maple cabinets and white quartz countertops. When she’s deep into meal prep, she can even slyly “barricade” her workspace by opening the dishwasher and a certain drawer, blocking off the galley.

Though the cabinets are dressed up with stylish modern hardware, in themselves they’re fairly basic—standard-size KraftMaid products. The Trowbridges agree that the workspace functions beautifully, with the galley being the perfect width and the sink facing the dining room. “I’m the cleaner,” Matt explained. “I can get started cleaning after a meal and not be antisocial.”

His family lives nearby and visits often. “STOA understood people are always eating here,” said Elisa.

In warm weather, those guests might enjoy their meal with both glass doors slid open (and screens slid closed), creating the feeling of being all but outdoors. Yet the room is protected from summer sun by a recessed entry and deep overhanging eaves. In the winter, the sun—now lower—is welcomed in.

Quality of life
Through relatively simple changes, Heiser was able to light up the original portion of the house, too.

“After living in this house a couple of years, we knew exactly where the light comes in at 10am on Saturday and Sunday morning,” said Matt. STOA added windows to take advantage of those spots, exchanged the solid front door for a glass one, and punched an interior window into the wall between stairwell and front room. These moves, said Heiser, were “easy to accomplish and improve the quality of life in the house.”

But most importantly, the new design called for wide doorways that line up front to back throughout the house. Now, as soon as one steps into the front room, said Heiser, “you have this connection to the outside”—an unbroken sightline that travels through the glass doors of the dining room and finally ends at a large tulip poplar tree at the rear property line.

“That tree was always a focal point,” Heiser said. “We lined everything up through the house to focus on that.”

The old kitchen is now a spacious mudroom with plenty of places to stash coats and other stuff, plus open floor area where the girls build forts. Storage is maxed out through clever placement of closets. “You have to make sure every room has at least one function, if not two or three,” said Heiser.

The new master bedroom features windows carefully placed to maximize both views and privacy. Photo: John Robinson

Upstairs, the master suite—with its quiet, modern look—belies the tricky engineering that ties this addition to the existing second-floor structure. A few steps lead up into the bedroom. These were necessary in order to give the dining room, below, a ceiling of comfortable height, but the steps also have the effect of making the master suite feel more separate and private. Plus, said Matt, “They’re a great place to tie shoes in the morning.”

The Trowbridges are quick to credit Heiser with making their bedroom and bathroom feel elegant within given constraints. For example, they already owned 12×12-inch limestone wall tile that dictated certain elements of the bathroom design; STOA helped source complementary floor tile. A double sink from Ikea isn’t particularly fancy, but “through the design, it works pretty well,” said Matt.

From the bedroom, an appealing jumble of other houses and trees—and distant mountains in the winter—form a panorama through the large windows that sweep along the south wall.

A key decision was to place these windows at chest height. “Justin insisted we go with a slightly higher window, so you could put furniture under them, and have more privacy,” said Matt. “He was good at keeping the context in mind, not getting lost in the house as a free-floating object. Glass all the way down to the floor”—though it had a certain romantic appeal—“would not be the right thing to do.”

Outside in
The Trowbridges had asked STOA for an overall look that was modern, but not too modern. Nowhere is this balance more evident than from the backyard, looking back at the addition. Hardiplank siding—its form traditional, its dark gray color contemporary—wraps the original house plus much of the addition. Yet it’s accented by unmistakably modern cedar planks.

And in a surprising way, the addition helps the house blend in. “Before, it was a small house in the middle of tall, two-story houses,” said Matt. Now the rear of the house, while it stands out with its modern materials and hues, also harmonizes with the neighbors in terms of its size and shape.

Inside and out, the tall addition only reveals itself gradually, as one moves toward the back of the house. “From the start, we wanted this thing off the back that you couldn’t see,” said Matt. “As you come around the back you get a very different experience.”

Elisa adds, “People are surprised—they say, ‘This isn’t a small house!’”

The backyard feels bigger these days, too. Previously, the outdoor space sported too much pavement, and it had big drainage problems. “Every time it rained we would have a lake on the east side of the house,” said Elisa. “We called it Lake Trowbridge.”

STOA regraded the yard and engineered gravel drains to carry away water. Level terraces are dressed up with bluestone pavers, their edges defined by COR-TEN steel that’s meant to acquire a rusty patina. There is space for a kitchen garden near the side entry, a flat gravel pad for playing ball and mini golf, and a dining patio—all flowing into the grassy lawn.

Lake Trowbridge is gone. But the Trowbridges themselves inhabit the yard much more these days—even when they are indoors.

  • Vanessa

    Would love to see the street side of this house. Over all from what I am seeing and reading it is beautiful. Would like to know if STOA Design could use another skilled draftsman,

  • TT

    so cool!

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